Monday, 18 November 2013

The Princess Sophia

Fiction ~ novel
Published April 1900
Approx. 75,000 words 
(First read 18/11/2013) 

Sophia is firmly in the Ruritanian romance category.  Benson's madey-uppy Eastern European principality is called Rhodopé and is situated in a coastal part of [wait for it]
Albania.  Luckily for EFB, no-one in Rhodopé speaks Albanian, or even seems to know it exists: everyone uses impeccable English.  After a brief tour of Sophia's childhood, we see her ascend her dad's throne at the age of something like 20 [as ever, I forget the detail].  She marries a neighbouring prince and settles down to a life of ... well, nothing much, really.The 'catch' or, to use a more technical term, the 'thing' about this princess is that she is, from an early age, addicted to gambling: she loves roulette far more than she ever does her husband, her son, her father, her country, or anything else.  Gambling is pretty much all there is to her: she can't be arsed with running her country, which bores her; her sole child (Prince Leonard) has to sit in the nursery twiddling his thumbs till he gets a look-in; she soon
realizes her husband (Petros) isn't up to much, but nonetheless appoints him regent while she's off in Monte Carlo for x months of every year indulging her ruling passion; the only idea she ever has is to save herself some travel by opening a casino in Rhodopé itself.
The plot: Petros and the evil prime minister [yah! boo!] decide to oust Sophia while she's out of the country tossing her civil list down the toilet.  In one of the weirdest conspiracies I've ever read, they plot together to pull off separate dethronements ... it's kinda complicated.  Inevitably all their efforts come to nought in the end.  The PM is jailed for life, the prince consort merely exiled and divorced.  This takes us to about three-quarters of the way through.  The remaining dollop is devoted to her life post-non-event, and to her 'relationship' with her son-and-heir, who eventually ~ at the age of 20 or so [yawn] ~ wins the principality off her in a bet.  Yes, you read that right.
As so often seems to be the case with these reviews, I've ended up giving the impression that I didn't enjoy The Princess Sophia.  In fact I did quite enjoy it ~ but that's a  long way from being the same as thinking it was 'good'.  It wasn't: it was tripe.  But, despite having too many shortcomings to list, it was quite enjoyable tripe.  Lovers of Benson humour beware, though: 'light-hearted' though the general tone is, the novel is a zone almost entirely free of laughs, intentional or otherwise.  
It's available online here.

THE CRITICS

Mr Benson's novel is not void of entertainment, but it seems to have been written in an overwhelming hurry. Often enough in reading some volume of memoirs one says, “there is a novel here,” and would go on to write it, were it not for the fact that one realises that the story has got to be extracted from the material, the essential kept ~ some of it invented ~ and the inessential rejected. Mr Benson seems to have started with the intention of writing a novel, and to have succeeded only in producing a sketch history of an entirely fictitious character, on which a good story might be founded by anyone who had the time required for such achievements.  [...] There are several stories hidden away in the mass of material Mr Benson has got together. It is a pity he had not time to make up his mind as to which of them he desired to tell.
~The Morning Post, 26/06/1900
We are inclined to think that Mr. Benson's new book is the best thing he has yet done. It is a very clever study of gambling and a very clever study of human nature. In all the book there is not a character which is not natural, and there is also an absence of the superficiality which has sometimes been noticeable in Mr. Benson's work. He seems to be thoroughly at home with his characters, and describes them with truth and with originality.
~The Guardian, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
 A gay and spirited performance, and the Princess herself a clever picture. It is lively reading, and the characters bubble along in true Bensonian fashion.
 
~The Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months
As brilliant in execution as it is happy in conception.
 
~The Birmingham Daily Post, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
Told with verve and wit. If the novel is to amuse we cannot recommend a more agreeable companion than Mr. Benson's brilliant friend The Princess Sophia.
~Literature, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months
The best of the book is undoubtedly the admirably-conceived and skilfully-drawn character of Sophia herself ~ princess, gambler, and very woman. Mr. Benson has written nothing fresher or more graceful than the chapter which tells the story of her courtship. The art with which he preserves his picture of the card-playing, betting, hard-riding girl from any taint of vulgarity or sordidness is not easily over-praised.
 
~The World, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
A rather long-drawn-out and not very creditable story of an imaginary principality lying between Greece and Turkey. Its Princess is a confirmed gambler, and in the end she stakes her kingdom in a game of roulette with her son, who is disguised, and whom she does not know. The book is decidedly inferior to Mr. Benson's historical stories of Greece, The Vintage and The Capsina. The last-named book seems to us to be the high-water mark of the literary achievement of the author of Dodo.
 
~The Outlook (US), 28/04/1900
The characterization is excellent, the humour pleasing, the satire true.
 
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
There is brilliance, lightness of touch. The dialogue is neat and brisk, and the miniature Court and its courtiers are amusingly treated.
 
~The Athenaeum, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months and Sheaves



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